On the evening before the opening of the exhibition, there was to be a Quaker meeting – of one of the two groups existing in Havana. I had said that I had wanted to meet the people, rather than other tourists and their guides, so Mercedes and Juan took me at my word and kindly included me in this meeting. I had no idea what to expect.
We ambled through a particularly noisy part of Havana, only to suddenly fall into a door off the main street, with grimy water tanker lorries parked outside.
Once up the stairs, we were welcomed into the comfortable family home of a black family. A little girl with her hair tied into tufts that stuck out from her head like the ears of a teddy bear, clung to her mother, a young lady with modern glasses on her nose.
There were half a dozen other people there, amongst them an American lady by the name Vivian who welcomed me so volubly on entering that I first thought she was the owner of the place. She spoke to me in broad Spanish with amplified syllables until I said something in English when I was stuck for a Spanish word in my response. Just nodding in Spanish did not seem good enough.
Sitting next to her on a bench was a thin, gnarled kind of man of Afro-Spanish extraction with large eyes like those of a Madagascan lemur, with an expression on his face not unlike Egon Schiele’s self-portrait. He smiled a broad shy grin and confirmed it with a strong handshake.
Next to him in the corner of the room, like a lady in waiting, there was an elderly, very black-skinned lady with amazing blue eyes and virtually no hair on her head. There was something about her that reminded me of Negro slaves on Texan plantations. Rather incongruously, she wore a mini-skirt that revealed her knobbly knees and thin thighs, a little disconcerting for me, being placed at right angles to her. Ignoring this now with consummate ease, this was to cause a little distraction later on.
She spoke a good amount of American English and took me under her wings, translating under her breath the gist of what was going on, leaning up close to me conspiratorially across the corner. She seemed extraordinarily kind and accepting of me, as indeed all the people were. Juan explained briefly that they had brought a guest with them to share the meeting in their midst.
On my other side sat a coffee-coloured young lady of comfortable proportions dressed in a loose trouser suit and topped off in a white round Chaplin hat of Colonial plantation style that seemed too small for her head. This was emphasised by her big lovely brown eyes that looked a little quizzical and melted into dreaminess. She was flanked by another short and stubby man who looked like a farmer from the Canaries and said nothing for the whole duration of the evening.
The line-up on my side was then completed by a young white girl with quick darting eyes and a sharp nose and chin who seemed to be at her ease lying on the floor, dressed in a long, old-fashioned pleated skirt. She proved to be Vivian’s daughter Kate, perhaps wisely positioned at the other end of the small room, as both of them were overflowing with a natural confidence. Opposite me there were Juan and Mercedes sitting on dining chairs, as well as the young black lady with the glasses who proved to be the hostess of the house, with her little doll daughter slipping in and out of this gathering quietly.
Juan briefly explained who I was and said a few good words about my exhibition, conjuring from his little belt bag he always carried a few of my exhibition leaflets, which, to my embarrassment, everybody began to read with alacrity. Luckily, Mercedes called the meeting to order, saying a few words and impressing them on everyone by holding each person, one by one, for a moment with an encompassing look.
She was summarising, it seemed, an outing the whole group had made earlier that day to some wood in some nature park west of Havana where they had watched birds, including the rare Cuban humming bird.
She went on to address questions of ecology and husbandry of natural resources, and exhorted respect for nature, la naturaleza, in general, which everybody seconded with approving moans and groans. She asked everyone to go away from this meeting with the intention of doing something useful for our planet.
I was impressed with the ease with which she delivered this impromptu speech, halting only for emphasis, and with the way she held the whole audience, even though she had decided to sit on the floor, so being the lowest person in the gathering. It was like the instinctive gesture of a humble, but born leader, facilitator and network co-ordinator.
She then initiated what I had been told would be a silent period of personal worship. I had a little difficulty at this point, finding myself to be the only person with wide-open eyes when everybody else closed theirs to concentrate on their inner thoughts and voices. When I tried to see if I could close my eyes as well, just trying it on for measure, I was embarrassed to find them resolutely springing open again of their own volition. There was clearly no way I could be guided to the spirituality I might possess by closing my eyes in a public act of worship. So I tried the next best thing, which was to cast my eyes down in front of me in a sort of transfigured way, feeling very self-conscious and a little ridiculous at the thought that I had been told before I could look like Jesus that way. Personally, I prefer cremation to crucifixion.
As I tried my best to find my inner contemplative self, my downcast eyes fell on the one thing nearest in my view – the knobbly bare knees of the elderly black lady next to me in her far too short mini-skirt – far too short per se, and certainly for a lady of her dignified age. I felt incredibly un-spiritual at noticing this, hounded and caught out by my earthly instincts. Finding myself in this rather less than profound state of mind, a little cross-ness overcame me at what, to me at any rate, seemed like enforced piousness, but then I was only a guest, and therefore privileged to partake. The whole contradictory nature of this quasi-religious Quaker meeting in the midst of Havana’s distinctly atheist noise and hubbub had lit a kind of fuse in me to set off I did not know what, rather than managed to lead me to internal peace and tranquillity.
Various members of this little congregation, from time to time, readjusted their posture, with Mercedes’s face re-orienting herself towards heaven in a kind of conscious jerk. The other members also seemed to go through this ritual of posture readjustment, as if they were punctuating the ritual according to some internal rhythm only known to the initiated. Perhaps they were praying ordinary, prescribed prayers, and so tended to reach a hiatus at similar points. I felt like a fish out of water, while being fascinated by the experience all around me. Worst of all, I felt guilty at shamelessly observing people unable to look back.
Instead of feeling contemplative, my sense of perception for everything outside was heightened and sharpened, and when one of the water tanker trucks parked outside the open window started up with a truly infernal, totally un-buffered noise that seemed to shatter the earth, I felt physically pained while everyone else continued in complete, unruffled silence, with no acknowledgement of the rude intrusion of the outside world.
The hostess’s little daughter joined the congregation from somewhere further inside the flat, trying to quietly climb a chair to sit on, while holding a shushing finger to her mouth as if to remind herself to be quiet.
Kate, the American girl on the floor, was the first to break the spell, her eyes quickly darting from person to person to check out their likely progress of fusion with whoever and whatever. The hostess’s sweet little daughter, with her stiff tufts sticking away from her head, showed the person who seemed to have awoken how to re-close her eyes, and when that did not seem to do the trick, closed her own eyelids with her fingers by way of example to her. The period of worship obviously followed some rules I was not privy to, and I was surprised and discomforted at the apparent length of this period. Perhaps I was a soul-less scoundrel, after all, a gypsy dog only interested in the sensual world we only get one chance to experience. There seemed to be aeons of time for that other world later on, and on and on and on.
At one point, a large black man squeezed himself quietly through the half-open door, choosing his moment most carefully to balance himself, in his large trainers, through the maze of feet to be negotiated. Once passed through, he instantly undid the impression of incredible consideration just shown by whistling through his teeth to awake his wife from her religious slumber so that she could make his supper. He had obviously just come home from work somewhere, and wanted his supper without further ado. His wife got up and set about preparing it, and then rejoined the group, resuming her contemplative stance.
Then, as if an internal clock had timed out, everyone seemed to return to this world again, which came as something of a relief to me. Perhaps 5 Ave Marias had run their course. Notwithstanding their clearly intense experience, all participants seemed to re-enter this world with ease, even liveliness. Somewhere, I was clearly missing a whole level of being. It was as though someone had tried to pluck a string that was missing from my string instrument.
Other people now ‘took the floor’ – a book that looked like a Bible to me being handed to anyone who looked expectantly enough to want to make a comment.
The American lady, Vivian, who had come from rural Vermont to Cuba especially on Quaker business, now leafed through the ‘Bible’ for a suitable passage to impart to the assembled company, and proceeded to read out, it has to be said, in pretty good if over-pronounced Spanish, a passage of her choice. That completed, she gave a short personal speech, again in Spanish, which both in tone and content seemed to me rather ‘sermonising’ and not a little patronising, telling the Cuban community here what they should aspire to for the wider good of the world and handing out a fancy pamphlet on Quaker matters that looked expensive. I felt alienated, the needs of Cuba being so dire as to preclude wider concerns for the planet which seemed to be an almost arrogant luxury at this point. However, I must have been the only person to feel that, going by the moans and murmurs of approval from the others.
The book was then passed on to the person beside her to choose a passage from it, seemingly from anywhere in the book, to read out aloud. I began to worry that my turn might come, too, and that I might have to protest my lack of conviction at that point, for the sake of my own integrity. However, the book passed at random between persons volunteering to read from it. Then, quite suddenly, Mercedes called it a day, only to be stopped in her tracks very gently by her husband Juan who set about making a little speech, to my horror and embarrassment, dedicated to my own well-being and the success of my exhibition in Cuba. I was very touched. It was completely unexpected. Juan spoke with great sincerity, and I felt generally ungrateful on account of my earthly thoughts when everybody was trying so hard to include me in their spiritual catechism. It was a chastening experience.
Then the meeting dissolved into lively chatter, and the hostess disappeared into the kitchen to prepare a little something special that sounded too good and worldly to be true. Sure enough, a few minutes later she produced a tray with most delicious fruit cocktails, with plenty of finely cut, exotic fruit in it. I was in the land of the living again. My neighbour with the large blue eyes in her very black face proceeded to re-explain some of the proceedings for me that I might have missed. She was a lovely person, all acceptance and hospitality. What a lovely nanny she might have been, I thought, catching myself out at colonial preconceptions again. While we were sipping the incredibly delicious fruit cocktail, the man with the lemur eyes and Schiele face let on that he had just started another Quaker group some few hundred kilometres to the east of Havana in Holguín, apparently a second attempt at doing so. What was it that drove these good people to be so good?
Rather disconcertingly, voluble Vivian, the American lady, rather like a tourist guide, now told me how little she had seen of Cuba due to her preoccupation with Quaker business, and I felt totally confused at the mixed messages coming from her. Was it a chore or a privilege to be a Quaker? Was it something that suited people with a proselytising predisposition, did it appeal to people who preferred to lead from the front rather than quietly do themselves – I just could not make it out!
One thing was for sure, this was a lovely group of gentle people who made me feel very welcome, very included, and strangely protected from the pangs of isolation and loneliness one might otherwise feel in such a foreign country. And make no mistake about it, Cuba feels very foreign, indeed – at least as foreign as India!
The hostess’s large husband now had a large meal served up in front of him at the table at the far side of the room, somewhat separated from the cohesion of the Quaker group. Introduced in hushed tones as the ‘master of the house’, his role clearly was to provide the venue for this gathering whether he partook in it or not, and he did not seem to mind a bit so long as he got his supper placed in front of him when returning home. It was all a lot for me to take in. Not unlike the infinitely subtle range in different skin colours encountered in Cuba, there seemed to be nothing that was simply clear-cut black and white!
The still, hot air of the Havana night in early March felt uncommonly balmy and pleasant when we ambled home, falling in with the languid pace so typical of all life here.
Perhaps a little of the peaceful centred-ness all these Quakers had had in common had entered my soul, after all.
Miracles do happen, if only we let them.
Content © R Reisenberger, 2000